COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations again trended downward Wednesday, fueling more optimism that Los Angeles County could advance further in the state's business-reopening blueprint, but the county's public health director said she'll keep preaching vigilance -- and continue to fret about another possible rise in cases.
"I am relieved that we're in our recovery where more and more people are being vaccinated and cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decrease,'' Barbara Ferrer told reporters during an online briefing. "But it has come at a huge price. And I know there are many like me remembering what we've been through and how the lives of so many have been forever changed by this pandemic. These memories ought to remind us that we owe it to ourselves and to our community to get to the other side of this pandemic, being as careful as we can to prevent more illness and death."
Asked later if she was worried about a slight uptick this week in the COVID transmission rate in the county, she responded flatly, "We're public health. We always worry about cases going back up."
Get Southern California news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC LA newsletters.
"We're going to worry until we get to a place where we have the vast majority of people here in L.A. County vaccinated," Ferrer said. "... We do know what steps we can take absent getting vaccinated to protect each other. Nothing has changed on that and the need to do it hasn't changed either.
"... But yes, we're going to worry and continue to ask people to help us by making sure that we in fact don't have any of that `creep up' as you noted," she said. "We need to continue to keep case numbers low. Also it's in everyone's best interest. Lots of people are talking to me about, you know, `I'm so excited, maybe we're going to get to the orange tier soon.' And yes, maybe we are, but we get there together by playing by the rules."
Los Angeles County this week moved from the state's most-restrictive purple tier of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which governs the reopening of businesses and activities during the pandemic. The county is now in the less- restrictive red tier, but if case numbers continue trending downward, it could advance to the orange tier by early April, allowing more capacity at businesses and potentially reopening bars for outdoor service.
But Ferrer said health officials will be keeping a close watch on numbers and trends. On Monday, the county reported that the COVID transmission rate -- which is the average number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- rose slightly in the past week from 0.79 to 0.87. Although the number is up, it remains lower than 1.0, meaning spread of the virus is still being slowed overall. If the number is higher than one, case numbers overall are expected to increase.
Ferrer on Wednesday reported another 75 deaths due to COVID-19, although two of those fatalities were actually reported Tuesday by health officials in Long Beach. The new fatalities lifted the countywide death toll from throughout the pandemic to 22,580.
Tragically, Ferrer said one of the newly announced deaths was a person under age 18 -- only the second person that young to die in the county during the pandemic. The person had an underlying health condition, the nature of which was not immediately known.
The county also reported another 897 confirmed cases of COVID-19, raising the cumulative total since the pandemic began to 1,211,733.
According to state figures, there were 861 people hospitalized in the county as of Wednesday, with 225 people in intensive care units. The overall number actually reflected a slight increase from Tuesday, when 857 people were hospitalized.
Ferrer touted the ongoing vaccination efforts, saying the county is administering 94% of the doses it receives within seven days, a statistic she called "extraordinary."
She outlined plummeting infection numbers among health care workers and residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities -- the first groups of people who were eligible for the vaccines. She said the sharp drops in cases are clear evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Ferrer acknowledged the possibility of people trying to "jump the line" and get vaccinated before they are eligible, particularly with shots now available to people who self-attest at a vaccination site that they have a qualifying underlying health condition. But she said health officials "remain hopeful that everyone again is waiting their turn."
"Our experience is there are always a few people that are trying to jump the line, but the vast majority of people in fact are playing by the rules,'' she said.